Making healthier meals for seniors

A taste test at Lowcountry Food Bank included roasted chicken, baked cod and tuna salad.

A standard supper from East Cooper Meals on Wheels consists of a protein, two sides, bread, milk and dessert, which typically means pudding or Jell-O.

Recently, though, the agency started twice a week swapping out the sweets for fresh fruit. The substitution, one of the first steps toward a planned menu overhaul, isn’t cheap: East Cooper Meals on Wheels projects its food costs will increase by 10 percent once its meals are fully redesigned to meet more rigorous nutritional standards. But staffers say the changes will contribute to the well-being of their clients.

“We’re serving a population with very high rates of diabetes, hypertension and heart disease,” says Chris Brooks, ECMOW’s director of community relations. “A lot of that is diet-related, when you get right down to it.”

If the initiative succeeds, by the end of the year, 80 percent of the agency’s meals will conform to healthy eating guidelines for seniors.

Now in its 30th year, ECMOW daily delivers meals to more than 300 residents of Mount Pleasant, Isle of Palms, Sullivan’s Island and Daniel Island. While the free service is available to anyone who is homebound, elderly women living alone make up 70 percent of its client list.

Because taste fades with age, many clients are reluctant to give up highly salted food. The agency is now working with Lowcountry Food Bank executive chef Kim Ortego to develop meals with less salt (as well as less sugar, more fiber and fewer calories) that clients will find acceptable.

“We’re trying to make sure the meals are as tasty as possible,” Brooks says.

Ortego in December created a lineup of meals for ECMOW staffers to grade on taste, cost and eye-appeal. While many of her more radical innovations, including barley-based salads, turkey meatballs and dishes seasoned with curry, haven’t yet made their way to clients, ECMOW president George Roberts says the agency has done away with almost all of the “white foods” on its menus.

“There’s no more white bread, white rice or mashed potatoes,” he says. “A lot of meals now, they’re getting brown rice or pinto beans.”

But Brooks stresses that the fixes aren’t limited to what comes from boxes and cans. He’s noticed more skinless chicken breasts and Brussels sprouts on the menu. One meal last month featured chicken cordon bleu made with brie instead of the usual cheddar cheese, which is higher in fat and calories.

“I look at the meals as they’re stacked up on the table, and they look pretty good,” he says.